Howl and Growl Review of the Nikon Digital D70

Intro Compare Images Battery A Few Days Manual and Modes Focusing Dust Problem Features Flash Final

"Janet with Flag" Nikon D70 at ISO 200 1/80th F5 with Spot Metering (18-70 Nikkor Zoom)

Introduction

Rating: Two Howls and Two Growls

The Nikon D70 was both a surprise and a disappointment. Leased for this review from www.competitivecameras.com in Dallas, the Nikon was equipped with an 18-70 DX Nikkor Zoom lens and was fully capable of taking some very good photographs. But some 300 dollar point-and- shoots are also quite capable of some good photos … so if you spend an extra grand for a typically priced D70 kit do you get enough features to justify the empty pocketbook?

During the last two years I have been shooting with a Contax ND which without a lens cost close to six thousand dollars. That camera also had some disappointments, but in putting it to a test against the Nikon D70 I was reminded that each manufacturer has its own unique problems in the digital nightmare of merging optics, cameras and operating systems. During this test, I also shot some direct comparison shots which included the D70 up against the Contax ND, a Contax G2 and a Contax 645. The latter two systems being a top end 35 mm rangefinder and the other a top end medium format 6x4.5cm system loaded with Astria 100F slide film!

Comparison Images

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Click for Comparison Shots! Click for Comparison Shots! Click for Comparison Shots! Click for Comparison Shots!

D70 Widgeon at ISO 200 (Above)

D70 Widgeon at ISO 1600 (Above)

ISO 200 Severe Crop of Widgeon reveals additional noise level and lack of sharpness at ISO 1600 in Widgeon

Battery

The Nikon D70 has an ISO range from 200 to 1600 and creates a 6-megabyte file. The rechargeable lithium battery never failed and the manual indicates that, depending on file, 400 to 2000 shots can be expected depending on flash usage. The built in flash is a Speedlight. There are different file qualities (sizes) you can specify … but in my opinion, unless you have a specific reason, it is not a good idea to shoot in any mode other then the "fine" JPG mode or in the Raw Native Mode. Yes, they take more space, but you can always reduce the size of the file for e mailing and web posting.

The first nice surprise was that Nikon has included an extra "backup" battery holder, which holds three CR2 batteries. This holder can be used if the main rechargeable EN-EL3 Li-ion battery runs out of juice. Nice. Those batteries are available everywhere. And while not cheap, you're not really supposed to use them. Just buy them and have them ready in case you need them and don't have the two-hour period to wait to recharge your main lithium battery!

A Few Days of Shooting

The D70's weight and feel with the 18-70 DX Zoom were good. The D70 is not a full frame 35mm camera. This means that because of the size of the CCD there is a 1.5 multiplier for all lenses. This gives the 18-70mm lens an effective focal length of 27mm to 105 mm.

After a few days of shooting, I actually started to enjoy the process. The camera and lens both have a "plastic" feel, but they look ok and the viewfinder (although small), is clear and bright, allowing for ease of composition. The camera includes an auto assist focus beam, which worked well in low light situations. Vertical and horizontal shots focused easily and little hunting occurred. There were a few times when "the hunt" was aggravating, but these were when the subject was dully lit and very flat. Overall, I would rate the focusing as very good.

The Nikon Raw files (NEF extension) were also creamy and smooth, as you would want to have in a native file format. Having shot the first day in Fine JPG mode, my whistle of gratitude for a beautifully smooth and perfectly matched color image was long and sincere as I looked at the first NEF file that was opened.

"Single Flower Highlighted" D70 at ISO 200 at 1/60th at F16 at 35mm (18-70 Nikkor Zoom

The Nikon D70 18-70 Zoom lens and the D70 Digital body felt like a decent combination. First picking up the camera and looking at the top LCD, front dial, rear dial, rear wheel you notice that the white print is too small to see without those darn reading glasses. And of course, some buttons have no print … just symbols (icons). You absolutely have to get the manual out to figure out what button does what.

Manual and Modes

The 200-plus page manual is adequate, but disappointing. My first major complaint is that the type is too small. Looks like 8 point. The manual is well organized and will fit in your camera bag. You'll need to keep the manual handy. The index is well done, and it's easy to find relevant topics.

When you first get the camera, be sure to tell the camera what the current date is and to auto number your images. Otherwise, you'll have the problem that when you change compact flash cards, the internal photo number is reset and you risk overwriting images when you copy them to your computer!

Use the top dial to specify your mode and type of shooting. My favorite mode is Manual or Aperture priority for general shooting. The D70 has four exposure modes, including:

- Program Auto Multi. Camera optimizes exposure and exposure compensation depending on subject.

- Shutter Priority. You select the shutter speed and the camera selects the aperture.

- Aperture Priority (my favorite!) You select the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed.

- Manual. You select the shutter and the aperture, usually matching the metering information available in the viewfinder.

There are also seven selected scene modes:

Focusing

My first mistake with the camera was not quite understanding the auto focus setup; thereby shooting a couple of shots where the focus was not on the central subject. Some of the blame must go to Nikon, simply because the selected focus indicator is a black outline and once you "get it" it you can see the outline. However; in my opinion, the "black" focus indicator lacks contrast and is not as easy to see as some other cameras. You also have the ability to tell the camera you want to focus manually. On the front of the camera is a lever to tell the camera if you want manual focus or auto focus. There are three areas of where to auto focus and five auto focus areas on the D70: But first, you tell the camera what whether to focus in single event when you depress the shutter release half way or whether to focus continuously (sports!) as you depress the shutter half way. This is means that the camera, once locked onto a subject, changes the focus as the subject moves.

My recommendation is to remember to use the "L"OCK lever on the back of the camera to lock in the focus type of Single area and remember that you use the thumb button with the arrows on the back of the camera to select the focus area.

The viewfinder display is ok, showing you exposure time, aperture, flash indicator, battery level, focus ok, metering type, focus area, exposure compensation, number of exposures remaining. While the information displayed is complete and the actual ability to see the information is adequate, it is not superb like a camera such as the Contax RTS III, which has the information in blue.

The D70 allows the user the simplicity of point and shoot or the complexity of a monster. When you consider fully the number of selections and settings on the D70, you will need to sleep with this camera to thoroughly know the camera. If you study the viewfinder, the LCD, the top plate, the back plate, and the front of the camera you will notice over one hundred icons, levers, buttons and gizmos. This does not even include the options available on the menu system. My head is spinning. Unfortunately, the modern camera is full of bells and whistles because the public seems to demand the ability for a camera to be able to "do everything", even though the vast majority of photographers use a very narrow selection of features. This soap box complaint (to be fair) is shouted at all camera manufacturers and not just Nikon.

The LCD on the back of the camera worked well, even in bright light. The camera comes with a silly LCD cover, which might be useful for long-term storage, but is just another hassle when shooting. This rear LCD cover is easy to put on and remove … when you remember.

Dust Problem

My impressions of the first shots taken were rewarding at first glance. The shots (taken in Aperture mode) were nicely exposed at ISO 200 and the colors were accurate. However; later when I looked closely at the files I was horrified to see the amount of dust on the image. This is a basic and perhaps fatal flaw of the D70 that the CCD sensor is subject to dust problems and the manual clearly states that Nikon recommends the sensor be cleaned by the factory or a factory rep. Yes, there is a Dust Reference Photo menu selection when a CPU lens is mounted on the camera. The selection allows you to take a reference photo of a white area and the camera will "clean up" native raw photos later taken. This feature is not available for JPG images and information is lost with this feature. The dust CCD problem is a serious problem. To combat this problem, do NOT change lenses very often …. and when you do, change lenses quickly and in a clean environment. To see if your camera has a dust problem, photograph some clouds in the sky! Here is the shot from my D70:

Dust Problem on CCCD!

Nikon D70 Dust Problem on CCD (above)

Features

Now, with digital photography, there are two distinct personalities to a camera: the shooting process and the computer processing process. The shooting process, in its simplest form, is the combination of shutter speed, f-stop (aperture) and film sensitivity. Variables such as type of light (daylight vs. tungsten) used to be taken care of with film type or with a filter. Now this is taken care of with the white balance setting on the camera. Sensitivity to light with a film-based camera was taken care of with the type of film using a different sensitivity rating (ISO/ASA). This ISO is now set on a digital camera electronically through the menu system. Other menu settings include contrast, saturation, hue, sharpening and image quality.

The D70 has, like most modern digital SLR cameras, a full range of white balance settings from 2,700K (incandescent) to 9,200K (deep shade). These ranges are slightly modified in auto mode to a range of 3,500K to 8,000K. Auto mode worked will in my shooting test and the camera has the ability to bracket white balance. You can "fine tune" settings with pre-sets and you can bypass the menu system to select the white balance while shooting with the WB button combined with the main rear command dial.

Shutter speeds range from an automated 30 seconds to 1/8000th of a second.  The camera also has an amazing 1/500th of a second flash sync speed.

Accessing and deleting images is relatively easy, but again you need to look at the manual the first few times. The "thumbnails" button threw me for a loop when I first looked at the button, but of course if you use it a few times you "get it".

The entire learning process would be easier if Nikon and other manufacturers simply labeled things better. As an example, the three major command dials and toggles have no labels. So when you read the manual and it says "rotate the sub command dial", you just can't have the camera in front of you and see a dial that is labeled "SCD" or "MC" (main command dial). Ok, this is being really picky and there are moans and yelling of "just memorize the dials idiot". But all you have to do is not shoot for 6 weeks with a camera to think "Hmmm. does this control the f-stop or the shutter speed … or the white balance or the f-stop or the exposure compensation or the ????".

The metering on the camera was very good. Three types of metering are available:

The user needs to realize that, depending on the shooting mode, certain metering is disabled and switched automatically to Matrix. As an example, Digital Vario Modes such as Landscape excludes spot metering and center weighted metering.

The user can use the AEL button on the top of the back of the camera to lock in an exposure reading. Exposure lock is not available in Manual Mode. The AEL indicator will show up in the viewfinder.

Exposure compensation is used in conjunction with EV stepping. With EV stepping you specify the size of the increment of exposure compensation up to 1/2 of a stop. With the exposure compensation you specify the number of increments. This is done using the EV button in conjunction with the main command dial. You can specify up to 5 stops of over or under compensation.

Flash

The built in Speedlight has in I-TTL mode a Guide Number (GN) at ISO 100 of 36(ft) or (11) in meters. Of course, the lowest ISO for the D70 is 200 so this equates at a GN in feet of 49. The flash has red eye reduction, front curtain sync, slow sync, rear curtain sync and slow rear curtain sync. Depending on your camera mode, certain flash options are not available. As an example, rear curtain sync is only available in Shutter Priority mode and Manual mode. In TTL mode the GN at ISO 200 is 56 in feet and 17 in meters. The term TTL basically refers to the flash interacting with the camera to interact with the camera settings and to modify the settings to reduce or increase the flash output depending on the subject distance. This is opposed to some flashes, which use Auto mode to allow for the flash to reduce the amount of light coming back to the flash. TTL mode uses the actual light coming back through the camera lens whereas an Auto Mode on certain flash units reads the light coming back to the flash unit.

A GN of 56 gives you an effective f-stop of 5.6 at 10 feet (GN divided by feet). Don't expect to shoot large group shots with this flash! But for fill in and small groups or individuals the flash is adequate. On the test camera I used, the flash would fire in Aperture Priority and Manual Modes, but the flash simply did not work. Something was definitely screwed up. I tested another camera and the flash seemed to work ok at very close range but definitely test this before shooting anything serious. The flash in Auto mode worked fine on my unit. The D70 is fully compatible with other more powerful Speedlight flashes including the 800 series.

The flash angle covers a 20 mm lens and the minimum flash distance ranges from 27 inches at 24mm to 13 feet 1 inch at 200mm. This minimum is variable depending on the type of lens. The highest sync speed is 1/500th of a second (which is rather amazing!).

The user can modify the flash output by using the flash compensation button in conjunction with the sub-command dial from -3EV to 1 EV in 1/3rd increments. This information is displayed on the top LCD.

The camera has other features including mirror lockup, self-timer, diopter, long exposure noise reduction, and 25 custom reductions (Simple Mode) or 41 custom functions in Detailed Mode. Another extremely strong point of the D70 is the ability to capture images simultaneously in RAW mode and JPG mode! Great feature.

In simple custom function mode

Custom functions:

The Nikon Raw File Developer is accessed through Nikon Picture Perfect. The program was easy to install and worked well with a few aggravations (like why, after importing the Raw NEF file, didn't the program try to import the next file from the same location as the previous file?). This irritation may be "fixed" through a Picture Perfect setting. My limited access to the program involved checking exposure information on RAW files and to convert the files to a TIFF file. You can also open the NEF files directly in PhotoShop with the appropriate plug-in!

This is typical of the type of information displayed in the information section of a JPG file:

Compared with the basic information from a RAW NEF file:

Final Comments

The Nikon D70 is a capable camera with the most serious flaws being the propensity of the CCD to catch dust and the lack of a low ISO setting. This absence of a low ISO setting starts to be a problem in a studio flash setting. Using an X-1600 low output White Lightning Studio light at the lowest setting, the minimum exposure that I could easily achieve was F5.6 at 1/500th of a second. Yes, you can use some neutral density filters and build a bigger studio and jump some other hurdles to improve these settings, but sometimes in a studio setting you want to be able to shoot at a much wider aperture and at a slower shutter speed! The inherent advantage of a lower ISO is to have less noise in the image. The following comparison shows a Widgeon Duck photographed in a Studio setting using a 6 megapixel Contax ND at ISO 25 and a similar shot taken with the 6 megapapixel Nikon D70 at ISO 200.

Contax ND Shot at ISO 25 with CZ 24-85. See how smooth the beak displays! (above)

Nikon D70 at ISO 200 with 18-70 DX Nikkor Lens. See the additional noise on the beak! (above).

Both of these Duck head shots are extreme crops (appoximately 10 percent of the original image)

"Janet at Theatre" at ISO 200, 1/50th at 4.5 at 52mm (18-70 Nikkor Zoom)

Any user of the Nikon D70 should also realize that as with ANY digital camera, the original file recorded to the Compact Flash media will usually need to be tweaked to make a presentable image. Most film processing services only take the image and print it as straight shot without any tweaking. In contrast, film processors and printers usually have an operator "tweaking" and adjusting the film- based shots. Hence, you need to give the printer a "print ready" image. This image can also vary from what you see on your monitor depending on the color profile embedded in the image. The D70 by default saves images in the sRGB colors pace but thankfully as an option can save images in Adobe RGB color space which has a wider range of capturing colors than standard sRGB. Just expect to spend a lot of time with a digital darkroom when using ANY digital camera.

An Example of an image out of the D70 with no adjustments versus an "adjusted" image.

The D70 looses certain features depending on the type of Nikon (Nikkor) lens used with the camera. The camera is completely incompatible with NIKKOR IX lenses. Recommended lenses are the CPU lenses type G and D. Non-CPU lenses loose auto focus. The only supported mode of Manual with non-CPU lenses makes no metering available. Use CPU lenses. And if you purchase DX lenses, don't expect to use them on non digital Nikon cameras!

The Nikon D70 body at the time of review has a street price of approximately $1,000. The tested 18-70mm lens has a street price of approximately $300. In my opinion, the Nikon D70 would be a good purchase only if you do not change lenses very often because of the CCD dust problem. The camera can take some great shots, but I'm not convinced that the unit would stand up to heavy use since the unit that I tested had some problems with the flash in certain modes. The number of pixels is not a complaint, since you will be able to make some great 8x10's with a 6 megapixel camera and having the ability to shoot up to ISO 1600 with limited noise problems is great.

Two Howls and Two Growls for the Nikon D70.

This review was written by Michael Hahn of Outback Coyote, Inc.  Steps were taken for accuracy in reporting but the reader should check the manufacturer's website to verify the information provided.

The Nikon D70 was leased at: www.competitivecameras.com

Call (972) 768-7469 coyote@outbackcoyote.com

Copyright 1998, 99, 00, 01,02,03,04 Outback Coyote Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Last Modified 07/11/05.

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